Months of protests and arguments on the wind power project proposed for the Goodhue and Belle Creek area climaxed in a six-and-a-half-plus hour meeting of the Goodhue County Board in Red Wing on October 5.
The meeting in the Old Courtroom at the County offices included two public hearings, which together lasted four hours. A stream of residents came forward to air their three-minute comments, some speaking up to four times, even though the County Board has no authority over this proposal. The debate actually centered on strengthening the County Wind Energy Conversion Systems (WECS) ordinance, passed in 2007, in light of new research and strong public opinion.
Hours of work and hearings by the PAC (Planning Advisory Commission), and its WECS sub-committee went into the proposals. All heaped praise on the sub-committee members, Joan Volz, Tom Webster and Cmmr. Dan Rechtzigel, who sifted through volumes of evidence painstakingly assembled by the protestors. However, the county ordinance only regulates installations up to 5MW, much smaller than the Belle Creek proposal.
The hope in the process is that the restrictions will send a strong message to the Minnesota PUC (Public Utilities Commission), and that they will enforce something similar. State Rep. Tim Kelly raised hope this may be so.
“The state has concerns about a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach,” he said. Attempts were made in 2009 to pass legislation that would require the state PUC to listen to local concerns and regulations. Although these proposals got “locked up” in committee, they would be back, he promised. “The state will certainly listen to what the county passes.”
Residents Protest Noise, Flicker
Public comment started with a heartfelt plea to “protect the little guy,” who is unable to afford long legal fights.
“We are already looking at covering up to a quarter of Goodhue County with turbines,” said Rick Conrad of Belle Creek, “especially when CapEx2020 comes through.” CapEx2020 is the high-voltage transmission line proposed for the Hwy 52 corridor.
Residents’ most serious concerns center on noise and “flicker” affecting neighboring homes and farms. Both are very difficult to measure, as Joanne Ryan noted. Should noise be measured in winter, when the ground is frozen, and the air thin? Should it cover noise echoing off buildings? How do you measure the effect on sleep? “Flicker,” the reflection of light from the blades, varies greatly with the angle of the sun, and the length of daylight.
Farming, Quality of Life Issues
Farmers fear that “stray voltage” will affect dairy cattle. Local electricians do not agree with Chuck Burdick, for developers National Wind, who stated “There is no possibility for stray voltage to escape.”
Harder still to measure is the effect on “quality of life.” Mary Brickzin-Gale and her family moved to Belle Creek for a quiet, beautiful rural place to live. “We will have 14 turbines within a mile and a half of our house,” she complained.
Chris Mallory, Kenyon realtor, guessed property values could fall 25%. Wildlife may also be affected, including nesting bald eagles. Ann Buck believes the area, at 5-10 houses per section, is just too densely populated to be suitable for such a large wind farm.
Public Safety Dangers
Public safety could rest on whether the new 800Mhz communication system will be put at risk. Radar “clutter,” and the height of the rotating turbines, could also be a hazard for emergency and Medevac helicopters. Board Chair Jim Bryant, himself a former police officer, underlined the need to safeguard these systems.
Chris Buck, in a letter, asked “How can the company change its name halfway through the project and now have an address in Dallas, TX, yet still qualify as ‘community-based’?” Rep. Kelly also said, “The state has concern that C-BED status is being manipulated.” (C-BED stands for Community Based Electrical Development, a major state program designed to encourage locally-based power projects.)
No Local Voices Heard in Support
Support for the project came from Burdick and Ben Kerl, for developers National Wind. They tried to allay concerns, and noted that they have raised the setback to non-participating property from the required 1,000′ to 1,500.’
Greg Soule and others queried why not one participating landowner came to voice support for the plans. He wondered if they had buyer’s remorse, having found troubling details in their agreements. Others spoke of “deceptive sales tactics.”
Bryant disagreed. “I have had many calls from landowners who are happy to be involved,” he said. “They just don’t want to get into public arguments with their neighbors.” Bryant later reported, “These are landowners who tell me they see wind power as a means to get a good return on their land. It is a much more reliable source of income than farming. They have carefully reviewed the agreements and are happy with them. Some of them have had the agreements reviewed by their attorneys.”
New County Ordinanc: 10 Rotor Diameters
The proposed ordinance called for a setback from non-participating buildings of 10 rotor diameters (RD). Since the project would feature turbines 271′ across, this would be just over half a mile. Kerl repeated the developers’ position that the company would not be able to meet this standard. Opposing residents said this was a minimum.
“Unless you vote for a 10RD setback, you are telling residents their health and safety do not matter,” said Chad Ryan, Chair of the Belle Creek Township Board. “There are ‘tons’ of research to show this is required.” Residents had presented much of this evidence, along with many examples of authorities who were adopting a similar standard. “Wabasha County is putting in half mile setbacks, and three-and-a-half miles from the Mississippi and Zumbro rivers,” claimed Marie McNamara.
The planning sub-committee also proposed adding requirements for zero flicker, and a 40-decibel sound maximum. This is stricter than the state-required 50-decibel limit, which already applies. “We wanted this as a negotiating tool,” said Rechtzigel.
Bryant asked, “Can we enforce this ordinance?” Commissioner Rich Samuelson favored a simple 10RD requirement, citing the need for simplicity, and the difficulty of accurate measurement.
“The 10RD figure should take care of the other problems,” he said. The ordinance passed with Samuelson’s amendment by 3-2.
County Attorney Steve Betcher introduced the draft agreement between the county and the developers. This covers permits, zoning and other concerns, and damage to county roads and other property.
“This is a voluntary agreement,” he said. “It applies much stronger standards than the PUC would apply, and ensures the project brings no costs to Goodhue County.”
Commissioner Ron Allen voiced concern, “Does this send a double message to the PUC? National Wind can go in there and say, ‘Look, we have this all agreed with the county.'” Betcher replied, “The agreement will not be signed unless, and until the PUC gives its approval. If we don’t have it in place first, we will never catch up.”
Rechtzigel asked, “Does the agreement cover problems that may arise with the 800Mhz system? This is a public safety issue.” Betcher replied, “We can insert a clause to cover that.” The agreement passed 5-0.
Area residents Erin Logan, Steve Groth and Paul Reese had formally submitted stricter requirements.
“We are now happy with the revised ordinance,” said Logan, “and withdraw our amendments, with two exceptions. We need to address the rights of long-time owners of private airstrips, and we propose a zero flicker standard for all public road intersections.” It was agreed that they would work on these issues with county staff, and report back.
Permits for Substation, Power Line
Finally, the Board considered Conditional Use Permits for a 3.1 mile, 69KV transmission line, and a switching station. The line would follow Hwy 51, and lead to the switching station on Duane Lindstrom’s land on 282nd St., both in Vasa Township. Allen again voiced his view that approving these permits at this time would send a mixed message to the PUC.
Rechtzigel replied, “The landowners involved and Vasa Township have agreed to these permits, with conditions. We would need very good reasons to refuse them.” Both permits were approved, Commissioner Allen voting “No.”
With a stricter county ordinance now in place, the project moves on to the PUC meeting on October 21.